At this weekend’s Cannabis Cup festival at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, growers and consumers will celebrate California’s arrival as the world’s largest legal recreational marijuana market. But as they savor the results of their victories, they’d be wise to acknowledge a lingering threat — black market operations that endanger the cannabis industry, the environment and the health of pot users.
This week, federal and state officials announced they will spend $2.5 million in federal money on efforts to shut down illegal cannabis farms in remote areas of national forests and public parks. Many illegal grows can trace connections back to drug cartels.
Marijuana growers are understandably leery of supporting such a campaign. Old battles with law enforcement are hard to forget. And, despite the support for Proposition 64 in Sonoma County and statewide, the industry’s standing with the Trump administration is precarious.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made his opposition to legal marijuana clear, but he has left enforcement decisions to federal prosecutors in each state. In Northern California, U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott says the focus of the new enforcement effort will be on illegal growers and their involvement in interstate trafficking, organized crime and the unauthorized use of federal lands.
“The reality of the situation is there is so much black market marijuana in California that we could use all of our resources going after just the black market and never get there,” Scott said at a news conference Tuesday with state Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
Legal producers may be skeptical of those efforts, but it’s in their best interests to support a crackdown on illegal grow sites. Operators of those sites have no interest in the sustainability of the legal market and little regard for their customers.
They also clear-cut trees, divert water and set booby traps that endanger hikers and other users of public land. Moreover, illegal grows are increasingly reliant on the banned pesticide carbofuran, according to the nonprofit Integral Ecology Research Center.
Researchers recently told the Associated Press that they found the toxic chemical at 72 percent of grow sites last year, up from 15 percent six years ago. Traces are showing up in the pot sold to users and in 40 percent of water samples taken downstream from illegal grows. That’s especially worrisome because more than half of California’s water supply flows through national forests.
Illegal growers smuggle carbofuran into the United States because the potent chemical is a quick, cheap way to protect a crop. A quarter of a teaspoon of concentrate is enough to kill a 300-pound bear, according to researcher Mourad Gabriel.
Marijuana growers, consumers and state officials all have a common cause in shutting down these operations, which undercut sales in the legal market. By some initial projections, legal marijuana sales in California were expected to top $5 billion this year. Those estimates may have been too optimistic, though, judging from the $34 million in excise tax revenue collected in the first quarter of the year, about a third of what was expected.
Overall sales are sluggish in part because some localities have been slow to pass regulations necessary to license new businesses and because the state’s licensing process is inefficient. Those difficulties can be resolved. But the damage done by illegal grows must be addressed — or the people gathering at the Cannabis Cup won’t have much to celebrate for long.